News

Actions

I-Team: Rampant EBT fraud leads to other crimes

Posted: 11:34 PM, Sep 11, 2015
Updated: 2015-09-11 23:34:18-04

One in every six Floridians depends on food stamps, called EBT cards, to help feed their families.

In Tampa Bay, EBT redemptions over the past two years added up to $2.5 Billion, or about $550 per person. 

The I-Team has uncovered that not all of the money is going where it's supposed to, causing rising crime in neighborhoods, fewer food options and millions of dollars in wasted tax dollars.

“Do you need a $20?” Town-and-Country Food Mart manager Orabi Ayed says on a tape shot by an undercover agent.

“Yeah, if you don't mind I'd like a $20,” said the agent.

Police say in an arrest affidavit that in addition to the food purchases, Ayed deducted and additional $40 from the EBT account which, by law, can only be used to by uncooked food.

Georges Raffoul and his son Abdallah Raffoul were arrested after police say they repeatedly allowed customers to buy alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and synthetic marijuana with EBT cards at their two Pasco County stores.

In Largo, police say employees of Sunshine Food Mart paid customers 50 cents on the dollar for their EBT cards and PIN numbers, so they could use the cards to buy food from other stores to restock their shelves.

“It's meant to support families to support children,” said Kelley Burroughs, a former Duval County narcotics officer who served on a joint local, state and federal EBT fraud task force, which worked hundreds of EBT fraud cases, most of which involved small stores in economically-disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“You're cashing 50 cents on the dollar, and somebody in the parking lot that's affiliated with the business will sell you some crack cocaine,” Burroughs said, describing one of his cases.  

“When you, say for example, find a mother that's utilizing these funds for those sorts of activities and her kids are starving, that's a tough one to see,” he said.

Burroughs says most EBT fraud is flying under the radar, but it often results in other crimes, like money laundering, robberies and narcotics sales.

 “It was made possible by EBT, absolutely. And when we shut it down, the amazing thing was that the drug dealers went away,” Burroughs said.

In the Tampa Bay area, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, has disqualified 78 stores in the past two years from participating in the EBT program for rule violations.

King’s Meat Market, which is across the street from one of Tampa's largest public housing complexes on North 22nd street, lost its EBT privileges in February.

“We lost more than $5,000, $6,000 a day,” said Layth Hasan, the store’s owner.  

The store openly advertises special packages that include items other than food.

“You pay a dollar and you get a pack of cigarettes or a 12 pack of beer, but you have to pay a dollar for it, you know? “ he said.

But Hasan says that's not why the USDA took away his EBT privileges.

“They say the only reason was too many transactions. They used the food stamp card more than once a day, but you know, it's a neighborhood behind us and the daddy and mommy and everybody use the card in the family, you know. We can't tell them nothing,” Hasan said.

The USDA won't release store-level EBT redemption information, but the I-Team found in court documents that neighborhood convenience stores average $3,000 in EBT transactions each month, but many of the stores investigated average 10-to-40 times that amount.

Burroughs says one suspect he arrested redeemed more than a million dollars in ebt benefits a year driving from neighborhood to neighborhood, using a scanner he kept in his car.

That suspect didn’t even have a real store.

EBT fraud is not unique to Florida.

In June, Alabama officers arrested 20 store owners and seized their businesses.

Police say they illegally bought EBT cards, used them to purchase groceries from discount stores then resold those items in their neighborhood stores to other EBT recipients at highly inflated prices. 

“Where quite frankly folks don't have the ability to get to a grocery store or get to any other type of store to buy groceries. They're being cheated out of their public assistance,” said Jefferson County District Attorney Brandon Falls.

Burroughs says that type of fraud is increasingly hurting families, communities and taxpayers right here in Florida.

“I don't think there's anybody that looks at their paycheck every week and sees money coming out of it wants their money going to that,” he said.

This interactive map shows the stores where EBT privileges have been revoked in the past two years.

So which counties receive the most money in EBT redemptions in the Tampa Bay Area?

The USDA provided us with data from a two year period.

Here’s the breakdown (County, Redemption Amount, Population, Per Capita Per Year)

                          

HERNANDO

$106,779,042

 175,855

 

$349.27

 

HILLSBOROUGH

$919,494,894

1,316,298

 

$324.35

 

MANATEE

$187,942,315

 351,746

 

$303.59

 

PASCO

$253,954,052

 485,331

 

$267.16

 

PINELLAS

$489,824,750

 938,098

 

$261.63

 

POLK

$411,689,036

 634,638

 

$261.07

 

SARASOTA

$125,208,664

 396,962

 

 $157.70

 

 

If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, contact us at adam@abcactionnews.com